Second Language Acquisition Research
and Heritage Language Teaching
Guadalupe Valdes Stanford University
In the United States, heritage language teaching refers to the teaching of indigenous and immigrant languages as academic subjects to students who have been raised in homes where these languages are spoken. For language-teaching professionals, the term refers to a group of young people who are different in important ways from English-speaking monolingual students who have traditionally undertaken the study of foreign languages in American schools and colleges. This difference has to do with actually developed functional proficiencies in the language in which instruction is given.
In general, there have been few connections between researchers engaged in the study of second language acquisition (SLA) and researchers and practitioners involved in the study of heritage language learners. As Valdes (2005) points out, heritage learners have been the focus of researchers engaged in the study of bilingualism, a field that has examined both individual and societal bilingualism and language contact from the perspectives of the disciplines of sociolinguistics, linguistics and psycholinguistics. Researchers in the field of applied linguistics have also been involved in the development of appropriate language pedagogies for heritage students. Much of the work on heritage learners (e.g., textbooks, pedagogical articles), however, has been carried out by individuals actually engaged in the teaching of heritage language classes. Unfortunately, the work is largely anecdotal, pretheoretical, and often not informed by research on bilingualism and language contact, language change, language variation, or language acquisition.
SLA researchers, on the other hand, have tended to distance themselves from the traditional concerns of applied linguistics (i.e., second language pedagogy) and have focused instead on the [developing knowledge and use of systems by children and adults who already know at least one other language] (Spada and Lightbown 2002, 115). Although recently criticized for what some (e.g., Firth and Wagner 1997; Block 2003) have referred to as a narrow psycholinguistic perspective, most mainstream SLA researchers have continued to engage in the theoretical and experimental investigation of the development of linguistic rather than communicative competence.
This chapter is an attempt to bridge these two worlds of professional practice by exploring potential areas of common interest. In organizing the chapter, I am assuming a limited background by SLA researchers in both the teaching of Spanish as well as in the study of societal bilingualism.